We can’t judge Community Colleges’ success by the numbers

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I am a community-college teacher jumping with joy at President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal, which would undoubtedly send more students to community colleges. But I can’t help but ask: Doesn’t he know that, by federal accountability standards, we’re an abysmal failure?

As Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times, “precious few of the students at community colleges are likely to complete their education.” He has some “bottom of the barrel” (his words) statistics to show it, to which I can add more: Nationwide, community colleges graduate only 22 percent of their students. Only 12 percent actually finish a two-year degree in two years.

I imagine Obama does indeed know these numbers, and one effect of his proposal—whether or not it passes through Congress—is to make us reconsider what we call “success” for this particular kind of institution.

First, let’s reconsider the numbers. The federal standard “graduation rate” counts how many first-time, full-time students complete a two-year degree in three years or less at the community college where they first enrolled. It’s an unreasonably limited sample of students with which to evaluate a multifaceted student body. According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, two-thirds of community-college students attend part time, and more than half of students who transfer to complete a bachelor’s never officially “graduate” from their two-year college (count this writer among them). Also, many students begin at one community college but graduate from another.

With all this in mind, the American Association of Community Colleges determines that our graduation rate is actually 43 percent, and that 63 percent of students whose declared purpose was to transfer to a four-year college either attain a degree or transfer.

Even so, why support an institution that, by the most generous calculations, loses over a third of its students? Isn’t that a high dropout rate? Perhaps, but Obama’s support should make us reconsider these students, too: The great virtue of our open-door admissions policy is that it gives any student a seat in the classroom, including the students who won’t earn a degree. Because of what kind of college we are, many of our dropouts can also indicate our institutional success.

Let me give a few examples.

A few years ago, I had two students who knew each other from high school, and—no kidding—they were both suburban hip-hop white teenagers named Dave. Both passed my class, one with flying colors and the other just barely. A year later I ran into flying-colors-Dave in the cafeteria, and was not surprised to learn that he was making strides toward transferring to a four-year college for a business degree. Naturally I asked about the other Dave. “He’s working for his dad,” he said. “He didn’t want to ‘do college’ yet.”

We put the other Dave in the “failure” column, but, speaking as his teacher, his story is one of success for both himself and the college: He didn’t know if he wanted to go to college, tried it for a semester, and, with this knowledge of experience, decided against it, at least for now. This is a good decision. The worst thing for everyone involved in education is a student who doesn’t want to be in class. If and when he wants to “do college,” the community college’s doors will still be open for him.

I had a student last semester who was very bright and capable but half-hearted about her schoolwork. Toward the middle of the term, I learned why. My students can choose any topic they want for their research paper; she wrote a remarkable essay about the occupational outlook for cosmetologists. This, I thought to myself, might also explain her always-camera-ready makeup.

When she and I talked about her paper, she told me she was leaving after the semester was over. I advised that she keep a college education in mind: It gives you greater mobility and opportunity in the long run, I said. But, I added, her well-researched, well-written essay showed what a well-informed decision she was making.

Not all “dropout” stories are as positive as these, of course. When many decide not to “do college,” they simply disappear from campus and end the semester with F’s. Other students who regrettably drop out are those who are academically underprepared and quickly overwhelmed. Community colleges are making every effort to support and retain such students (or at least to advise them to withdraw from classes and not damage their academic records). The Times article is right on this point: The proposed federal largess should not only make tuition free for these students, but also increase our resources to help them.

Otherwise, we should be happy to continue to allow students like working-for-his-dad Dave and the cosmetologist to benefit from higher education—without graduating. Lest we forget our mission statement, the value of education is not measured only by how many degrees we print. Higher education fosters a society that values pursuits of intellect, capacities for understanding and empathy, a citizenry engaged in the good health of its communities and country.

This brings to mind another student:

First I saw his impeccably white sneakers. Then I recognized him from my class two years before, the lowest-level writing course that the community college offered, the course whose final exam consists of writing a single cohesive paragraph of six to eight error-free sentences.

We were standing outside the public library, I with my book and he with his “official vendor” badge selling Ground Cover, the homeless advocacy newspaper. Whenever I see former students, I ask where they are in academic or professional lives—did you transfer, are you working?—but this time I declined to ask. In fact, I hoped my face did not betray how low my heart had sunk.

“Hey, look at this!” he said, dropping his stack of newspapers to the ground to open a copy. “I wrote a poem!”

Did he graduate? I didn’t look into it, but I doubt it. He is a proud published poet, however, and I am loath to call him—or myself, or our college—a failure.

Author Bio: Brian Goedde is a lecturer in English at Naugatuck Valley Community College, in Connecticut.

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